Movie Reviews - 2010 postsWednesday September 15, 2010
Review: “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010)
WARNING: BACK-TO-THE-FUTURE SPOILERS
The joke is in the title with a movie like “Hot Tub Time Machine.” You just cross your fingers that the jokes keep coming.
They don’t. Pretty quickly the necessity of the plot, such as it is, kicks in, and the jokes gradually disappear so we can move the story along towards its monumentally stupid resolution.
The beginning isn’t much better. We start with the usual schtick for cinematic down-on-their-luck schmoes:
- Nick (Craig Robinson of “The Office”) is recognized at his customer-service job by a douchebag who remembers him from his glory days—fronting a band called “Chocolate Kiss”—and he’s embarrassed by it.
- Adam (John Cusack) comes home to find his girlfriend has left him and taken half their shit.
- Adam’s nephew, Jacob (Clark Duke), a fat 20-year-old, lives in his basement playing video games.
- Lou (Rob Corddry), boozing it up, drives his sports car recklessly into his garage, plays air piano and air drums to bad ‘80s music, and, because he doesn’t turn off the car, nearly asphyxiates himself.
Everyone assumes it was a suicide attempt. That’s how these three friends (plus Jacob) reunite again. They were inseparable 20 years ago but they’ve since drifted apart, as friends drift apart, but to cheer up Lou they decide to go back to Kodiak Valley, a ski-resort town and one of the high points of their youth, where “Nobody gets carded and everybody gets laid.” In a way, this formula is similar to last year’s box-office hit, “The Hangover”: three friends plus a fat guy head to Nevada to party.
Unfortunately, K-Val is now run-down and full of “out of business” signs. Their room at the Silver Peaks Lodge smells like cats, their one-armed bellhop (Crispin Glover, the first—or, after Cusack, the second—’80 icon to appear), is surly, and the hot tub is empty and filled with an old, dead, smelly animal. “If Lou kills himself, can we go home?” Jacob asks plaintively, in one of the film’s better lines. Instead they sit around, play quarters, and bitch.
Until the hot tub comes magically to life. Why does it come magically to life? Who knows? Why does it become a time machine? Because a Russian soda drink, made with chemicals that are “probably fucking illegal in the United States,” spills on the control panel. Sure, why not? We know from the title that this is supposed to happen so it happens. And back to January 1986, and that glorious weekend in Kodiak Valley, they go.
Only gradually do they realize they’ve traveled back in time. They see legwarmers, big cellphones, geri curl, “Safety Dance,” “Miami Vice,” ALF, and Ronald Reagan making a speech. Reagan is saying, “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not,” which is from his arms-for-hostages mea culpa, which is from March 1987, not January 1986. It’s the first of many, many anachronisms in the movie. There are so many they almost seem purposeful: a celebration of a “fuck it” society.
I had two thoughts when I first heard of the film’s concept: 1) Funny title, and 2) Who the hell wants to go back to the ‘80s? The movie agrees:
Lou: It’s the fuckin’ 80s, guys. Let’s do what we wanna do. Free love!
Jacob: That’s the ‘60s, dipshit.
Adam: No, we had, like, Reagan and AIDS. Let’s get the fuck out of here.
To us, and to each other, they still look like John Cusack, Rob Corddry, etc., but to everyone else, and in the mirror, they look like their 1986 selves. Lou has long, heavy-metal hair, Nick has a Kid (from Kid n’ Play) ‘do, Cusack is youthful, Jacob keeps shimmering into non-existence like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future.”
And just like Marty McFly in “Back to the Future,” they realize their presence in the past could change the future, which is their present, so they decide to, in essence, walk in their own footsteps and do what they did 20 years ago. Which means Adam has to break up with his hot, bouncy girlfriend, Jenny (Lyndsy Fonseca), Lou has to get beat up by the ski patrol, Nick has to go onstage and sing.
Except Marty McFly had a reason for not changing the future: otherwise he might not exist. Ditto Jacob here. But Adam, Lou and Nick? Their lives suck in 2010. They have a chance to do what most of us would love to do: relive their young adulthood with an idea of what’s coming. Example: it’s January 1986? In two months, Microsoft goes public. I’ll take ten thousand shares, please.
Things have begun changing anyway. Jenny breaks up with Adam rather than vice-versa, Adam meets a quirky girl from Spin magazine and begins a very 1980s, very Cusack-esque relationship with her, and the Denver Broncos lose a big game it was supposed to win.
The film has moments. At one point, Nick, who is so whipped he can barely “cheat” on his wife in his 1986 incarnation, tells Adam why he clings to her so much: “I don’t have my music. I barely have friends. Without Cathy, I’m nothing.” This is a frank and deep (and adult) admission for a comedy but the movie doesn’t do much with it. Instead it pushes the usual envelopes (Lou loses a bet and has to give Nick a blowjob—but he passes out first) or gives us scenes cadged from other, better movies (Nick wows a crowd with a Black-Eyed Peas song the way Marty McFly wowed his crowd with a Chuck Berry song). There’s a fight, a chase, and a kind of mystical repairman (Chevy Chase) who helps them, in the end, get back to the future. Except Lou. “ I really was trying to kill myself” in that garage, Lou tells Adam. So he decides to relive his life and make it better.
This would be an interesting twist if it weren’t so icky—if Lou weren’t so icky. Earlier in the film, Nick says of Lou, “Like the friend who’s the asshole? He’s our asshole.” He’s basically the Biff Tannen of the movie, and, like Biff Tannen in the “Back to the Future” sequel, he uses his knowledge of the future to create a crummy empire. Nick, Adam and Jacob swirl back to 2010, where Lou is rich. He started “Lougle” before “Google” (apparently it doesn’t require coding or anything, just a name) and fronted Motley Lou rather than Motley Cru (apparently it doesn’t require talent or anything, just a voice). Did Lou do anything good in the meantime? Prevent 9/11? Encourage George W. Bush to become Commissioner of Baseball in the early 1990s? And if he did start mucking with global events (Kuwait, Iraq, al Qaeda, Clinton, Lewinsky, etc.), at what point did the year he was living through a second time no longer resemble the year he lived through the first time?
“Back to the Future” was a good popcorn movie, and hugely popular in the summer of 1985, but it did leave us with the uncomfortable thought of what happened to the other Marty. In 1955, Marty helps his future dad grow a pair and that changes everything, and thus, when he returns to 1985, his father’s richer, Biff works for his family rather than vice-versa, and his siblings aren’t losers. Marty grew up in Family A but this is now Family B, and...he doesn’t know them. He doesn’t know anything he and his family did for the first 18 years of his life. More, he, Marty A, has now replaced Marty B, the kid who did do all those things with his family. So what happened to Marty B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?
Same thing here. These guys go back to 2010 and Nick is a former rap star and current record executive. Adam, instead of coming home to a house without a wife, comes home to a mansion with a wife—the Spin magazine girl. This is Life B rather than Life A. But Nick and Adam have the memories of Life A. So what happened to Nick B and Adam B? Replaced? Erased? Out of existence?
It’s a happy ending but should it be? Shouldn’t someone speak up? “Dude, I don’t know my wife, I don’t know my job. My memories for the last 20 years are now false. You stole my life!” Shouldn’t they be counting their friends to see who’s missing? Shouldn’t they be counting their children to see if they have them? Or lost them?
I know. I’m overthinking a shitty little movie. Would that I could rewind my two hours and live them over again with a good book.
Cusack and Duke wonder how they wound up in 1986...or in “Hot Tub Time Machine.”
Review: “Winter's Bone” (2010)
WARNING: HARDSCRABBLE SPOILERS
“Winter’s Bone,” written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik, and directed by Granik, from a novel by Daniel Woodrell, opens to an acapella version of “Missouri Waltz,” the state song of Missouri, where the film is set, and its spareness suits the environment. The trees are bare, the grass scabby, the sky overcast. The sun never shines and the rain never comes. Everything feels dead. There’s music in this place but this is a place without music.
The scary underside of the American dream that’s usually displayed on film is black inner-city life. Woodrell’s Missouri Ozarks is the negative version. Not black but white. Not inner-city but rural. Families rather than gangs. Meth rather than crack. At the center, though, the same: tough, scary people with their codes of silence.
The movie opens on what seems like an untenable existence. Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17-year old girl taking care of her two younger siblings, Sonny and Ashlee (Isaiah Stone and Ashlee Thompson), in a scabby house near some scabby woods. It’s all tied-up dogs and beat-up couches and flannel shirts and plastic cups—the refuse of the local Goodwill. It’s children caring for children. The mother lost it a while back and the father, Jessup, well, he ain’t around no more, but Ree does what she does. She wants to go into the Army but she’s got her responsibilities and she takes them seriously. On the way to school with the kids: Spell “house.” What’s 7+2? She washes and combs her mother’s hair, cooks potatoes in bacon fat, and teaches the kids the lessons that the Ozarks taught her: “Never ask for what oughta be offered.”
One day this untenable existence becomes a whole lot less tenable. The local sheriff pulls up looking for Ree’s father. He’s out on bail, but disappeared, and he put up the house as part of his bond. If he fails to show for his court date next week the bondsman will claim it. In a flash you see Ree’s toughness.
Ree: I’ll find him.
Sheriff: Girl, I been looking.
Ree: I’ll find him.
Her search is our introduction to this world. It’s not pretty.
First she goes to her friend Gail’s house, in a kind of exurbia, and asks to borrow the truck so she can do her search. Gail (Lauren Sweetser) is a new wife, new mom, and she asks her husband, who’s listening to some roaringly angry rock music. He says no. Ree can’t believe that her friend, whom she thought tough, would back down so quickly. “It’s different once you’re married,” Gail says. Indeed. This husband, in fact, turns out one of the better ones.
Subsequent visits are similar: once-handsome, now-haggard women greet her suspiciously, guarding the inner sanctums of their mostly silent men. First it’s Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz) keeping folks away from Teardrop (John Hawkes), Jessup’s brother, who eventually emerges from his back bedroom, and who deals with his niece’s questions by choking her for 10 seconds. Then there’s Megan (Casey MacLaren), who doesn’t know Ree, and who guards the junkyard fiefdom of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan), Jessup’s meth-head friend. Finally, it’s Merab (Dale Dickey), the matriarch of the Miltons, with whom the Dollys have apparently feuded, and whose patriarch, Thump (Ronnie Hall), she doesn’t even get in to see. Her descent into increasingly unfriendly territory is revealed in each woman’s greeting:
Victoria: “What brings you here? Is somebody dead?”
Megan: “What’s your business?”
Merab: “I expect you got the wrong place.”
This is a harsh, unsympathetic world and the solutions people offer are half solutions or no solutions. Her neighbors say they’ll take Sonny but not Ashlee. Teardrop suggests she sells the woods before the land is taken. The Army won’t allow her to join and take care of the kids.
Meanwhile, Ree keeps teaching her brother and sister. Here’s how you make deer-meat stew. Here’s how you shoot a rifle. Here’s how you pull squirrel apart to get the meat. It’s Rural 101.
But news about Jessup? Silence.
Eventually she tracks down Thump Milton at a livestock auction and pursues him back to the Milton place, where Merab greets her with a glass of water in the face and a punch in the stomach. She’s then dragged to the barn and beaten—by the Milton women. Thump stands over her and tells her to explain herself. One senses it’s a life-and-death matter. Explanations are defiantly given and stoically accepted. This is a land whose very culture of silence fosters misunderstanding, but before anything else can happen, Teardrop shows up to barter for her. “She does wrong you put it on me,” he says. “She’s now yours to answer for,” Thump responds. It’s as if we’re watching a foreign culture. We are, but it’s Missouri.
There’s a great moment, by the way, inside the barn when we first hear Teardrop’s truck pull up. The Milton men, who are many, flutter away from the door like birds. “Shit,” one says. Another says, “I ain’t gonna stand her naked with that motherfucker coming.” Teardrop is the guy who choked Ree earlier but he’s a slight man, so we don’t quite know what the deal is until he gets involved in the search. One scene in particular. He rousts Ree from bed, saying, “I’m tired of waiting for shit to calm down. Let’s poke ‘em and see what happens.” They visit a cemetery. No luck. Then the local sheriff pulls them over. He approaches the car and tells Teardrop to get out. He says, “I know you, I know your family.” He says, “It’s about your brother.” Teardrop doesn’t move. He just stares into the driver’s side mirror with the scariest, deadest eyes. Is there talk for John Hawkes for best supporting actor? I know Jennifer Lawrence’s name has been bandied about all year but haven’t heard thing-one about Hawkes. He deserves the talk and probably the nom. This scene alone. I don’t know how you get your eyes to look like that. In the end the sheriff backs down because he could see—and we could see—Teardrop wouldn’t.
By this point Ree knows her father is dead (“I’m a Dolly, bred and buttered, and that’s how I know,” she says), and even more so when she discovers her father, one of the many meth addicts in the Ozarks, turned snitch. He talked in a land where you don’t. But Ree’s talk in the Miltons’ barn—why she wants to know what happened to her father—along with Teardrop poking ‘em, finally breaks the Miltons’ silence. In the middle of the night the Milton women take Ree for a car ride, then on a rowboat ride out into the middle of a lake/swamp, and Merab nods downward. Ree reaches into the frigid waters and feels her father’s cold dead hands. In the audience I thought: “And? She promised not to tell anyone where the body is, and she certainly can’t pull it up, so what evidence is she going to bring back to the sheriff?” Which is when the chainsaw comes out. Yikes. Ree can’t do it, so Merab, rolling her eyes, chainsaws one of the hands loose and Ree, sobbing, lets go of the other. Which brings up this sad, sad line. “Why’d you let go?” Merab chastises. “You need both hands. You know that old trick.” That old trick: Sawing off one hand so the cops think you’re dead. This is a harsh fucking world.
“Winter’s Bone” tells a good story but it’s so grim, so unrelentingly gray and cold, that I can’t say I enjoyed myself much watching it. At the same time it’s expertly done. It tells of a foreign culture in the middle of the United States. It gives us a strong, upright, central character, who, at the end, is merely back in the middle of her untenable existence, stronger for the journey. That’s the happy end: the grim beginning. It’s the man with no shoes who almost lost his feet so now he’s happy he merely has no shoes. “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back,” Ree tells her siblings at the end, and it’s probably true. Everyone strays in this movie but she never veers from the path.
Review: “The American” (2010)
WARNING: COOL, PROFESSIONAL SPOILERS
One imagines they called it “The American” only because “The Quiet American” was taken.
This is one quiet action film. It’s more of a suspense film. The suspense is often: What’s he doing? Who’s that guy? What the hell is going on? Apparently American moviegoers have complained. I’m not surprised. This is a Labor Day movie that requires work, and most Americans go to the movies to not work, to justify their preconceptions, to strengthen their worldview. “Give me a hero who’s handsome and knows everything and shoots second and wins, and let me eat my bucket of popcorn and slurp my soda and imagine I’m him.”
Well, we got handsome anyway.
Last January, Terrence Rafferty had a good piece on George Clooney in The New York Times, in which, of Clooney’s recent roles, he wrote: “He works the territory of 21st-century American normality, playing—now, at 48—middle-aged men who are good at what they do and getting by, for the moment, but are beginning to feel stirrings of doubt and dread.”
I’d go further. The longer Clooney’s been a star in Hollywood, the more he’s played the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who is thinking of escape, of saving what’s left of his soul. Think “Syrianna,” “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and now “The American.” I don’t want to be an assassin, a fixer, a man who fires people, an assassin. Do we add movie star to the list? Are these roles a cry for help? Maybe it’s George Clooney who is the cool, distant professional in an unethical business who wants to save what’s left of his soul.
As “The American” starts, Jack (Clooney) seems to be living it up: a cozy, snow-bound cabin, a glass of wine, a naked Swedish woman on the bed. Most men would be happy, but he seems distant. The camera shots aren’t lurid but quiet and serious. There’s already an air of dread.
The two bundle up and go for a walk out on the snow-bound frozen lake. It’s beautiful. Then we get a perspective as if from someone watching them in the nearby woods. A second later, Jack sees footprints in the snow. He’s suddenly on. He looks up, around, then pulls Ingrid (Irina Björklund) to the cover of a nearby rock just as, bewwww!, the first bullet hits the rock. Ingrid is startled and scared, and even more startled and scared when Jack pulls out a gun and shoots the assassin. “Jack?” she says. “Jack, is he dead?” He gives her orders. “Go to the cabin and call the police!” I’m thinking he’ll use this opportunity to get away. Nope. She takes two steps in the snow and he puts a bullet into the back of her head. Later he kills the second assassin, steals his car, travels to Rome, calls the home office. He and Pavel (Johan Leysen) use shorthand. “It’s Jack. I’m here.” They meet at a pasticceria and use more shorthand. “Who was the girl?” Pavel asks. “A friend... She had nothing to do with it.”
We suspected as much but it’s still a shock to hear him say it. He killed her then for what? To save himself? To save his agency? His cause? He seems like a man without agency or cause. He seems like a man full of dread and doubt who keeps doing what he’s doing because he’s on automatic. Pavel makes arrangements for Jack to disappear into a small Italian town, then gives one last piece of advice. “Don’t make any friends, Jack,” he says.
That’s our set-up. A quiet American, traveling through small Italian towns, suspecting everyone, not making friends. It’s a tough set-up. A man needs something to play off of. Drama needs a second actor on the stage. Clooney’s just got... what? His suspicions. He even suspects Pavel. The cell phone he’s given he throws into a river. He switches small Italian towns. You know those modern, high-tech secret agents who can track villains around the world using high-tech gadgets? While running furiously? Jack’s old school. He makes calls from rusty pay phones, reads The International Herald-Tribune in newspaper form, collects car parts to make his weapons. He’s off the grid. Safer there. The movie is based on a 1990 novel by British author Martin Booth called “A Very Private Gentleman,” and that’s what he is. Though more distant than private, more man than gentle.
But we’re social animals. We need. Jack begins to frequent a brothel. Same woman: Clara (Violante Placido). He keeps running into the local priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who asks questions in heavily accented Italian. He is curious about this man who is curious about nothing. He encapsulates Jack’s country, my country, in a sentence. “You are American,” he tells Jack. “You think you can escape history.”
Eventually the home office gives him another job. He doesn’t have to kill—apparently he doesn’t want to kill—he just has to make a weapon for another assassin, named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), who’ll do the killing. She shows up, tests the weapon in some fields, requests refinements. She seems a female version of Jack: attractive, distant, highly professional. One senses Jack’s interest, particularly when, back in the brothel, Clara says he seems different. Is he thinking about something? “Or someone?” she asks with a smile. But the movie doesn’t go there. He spends more time with Clara, and she with him. Is she the luckiest hooker in the world? Not only does her john look like George Clooney but he goes down on her. He takes her out to dinner. They have this conversation:
She: Can I ask you something?
She: Are you married?
She: I was sure that was your secret.
He: Why do I have to have a secret?
She: You are a nice man, but...you have a secret.
He suspects her. He suspects Father Benedetto, too, but accepts a dinner invitation to his house, and gets spare parts from one of his wayward flock, Fabio (Filippo Timi), who, we find out later, is actually the Father’s son. We’re all sinners. We all have secrets.
Where can the story go? That’s the question. Where can Jack go? Toward humanity? Or do his suspicions get the better of him? In a later scene, reminiscent of the first, he nearly kills Clara during a picnic by a waterfall, then holds her close. Maybe this is when he begins to change. It helps that Clara is innocent. But then so was Ingrid.
So Jack moves toward humanity, toward love for Clara, and away from his dirty business. From another rusty pay phone he tells Pavel he’ll make the drop to Mathilde but then he’s out. Pause. “OK, Jack,” Pavel says. “You’re out.” We’ve seen enough of these movies to know the shorthand. Out = dead, doesn’t it? Or are we being paranoid? The drop is done at a roadside cafe. Two tough guys sit by a window. A waitress comes by, then Mathilde, who leaves to check the weapon in a bathroom. Then the two men leave. Then the waitress leaves. Jack is alone in middle of the cafe. Is he alarmed? We are. Get out of there! He does. He meets Mathilde outside the bathroom rather than inside the cafe. They say their goodbyes as a busload of middle-school futbol players pulls up and unloads.
Were we being paranoid? Nope. Pavel later chastises Mathilde for not killing Jack and she pleads a lack of opportunity. But she’ll use the weapon he made to kill him.
Question: Was Jack always constructing the means of his own death? Or did they only target him once he wanted out?
Follow-up question: Did he sabotage the weapon because he was tired of the killing, all killings, or because he knew they would target him? The home office always cleans up around its messes and he knows his mind is one messy place.
I think screenwriter Rowan Joffe and director Anton Corbijn make a mistake bringing Pavel to the small Italian town for the killing. Pavel seems a guy tied to his home office. He doesn’t go out into the field, and certainly not when a killing is underway. So once the weapon backfires and Mathilde dies we know his real purpose there. He’s the assassin now. Sure enough, after hearing Mathilde’s final words (“Who do you work for?” he asks. “Same...as you” she responds), Jack walks down a small Italian street, alone, senses something, turns and fires. Pavel drops, bullet holes in his stomach and forehead. But weren’t three shots fired? Was Jack hit? Corbijn keeps the camera close so we’re not sure, but Jack seems to be walking unsteadily, and, yes, in the car, he’s sweating too much. Yes, he’s been shot. Yes, he’s about to die. But he needs to see Clara one last time.
One of the criticisms of the film is that it’s too brooding, too gloomy, and maybe it is, but what does one expect from a director who photographed this famously gloomy album cover? Besides, the film was consistent in its tone. It reflected its protagonist’s mood.
There are small joys here: the conversations with the old priest, who’s got a great face, and the quiet, efficient way Jack works. Jack is passing himself off as a travel photographer, but the priest surmises, “You have the hands of a craftsman, not an artist,” and he’s right. That’s one of my takeaways from the film: the scenes of Jack expertly building this weapon. The doing of the thing to see if it can be done.
No, the problem isn’t the mood but the resolution: Pavel showing up and Jack getting shot and dying. How much more effective if Jack had gotten away? Because there is no away. He’d still spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder. Worse, he’d have something (Clara) that he cared about. Worse, the two might have several things (kids) that they cared about. It wouldn’t get any better for Jack, it would only get worse. Some suggestion of this in the final shot would’ve been effective, I think.
I’ll take the end-end, though. Throughout the film, Clara and Mathilde call him “Mr. Butterfly” for the butterfly tattoo on his upper back; and in the final distant shot by the waterfall, Jack’s car rolled to a stop by a tree, Jack dying inside, we see a small white butterfly move up against the darkness of the tree. Is it too much? I liked it. It was subtle enough and implied a lot. After a lifetime of brutality, some small fragile thing was finally set free.
Review: “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1” (2008)
WARNING: SPOILERS, PART DEUX
No one has a chance against French gangster Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel).
Which is to say: no one in the audience has a chance to root for anyone else in the movie. He may kill and steal, he may be sadistic and egomaniacal, he may get fat and wear the most ridiculous hair and beard styles of the 1970s, but he’s still the main guy in the movie, the main force, the main man. His eyes are alight. He makes big French meals and gets beautiful French women—sometimes two at a time. He has fun. The cops, in comparison, are beady-eyed things, the journalists either left-wing dupes or right-wing liars, his fellow criminals dull company men. Everyone scrimps, whispers, scuttles. Mesrine booms.
Only once does he meet his match, and that’s when he kidnaps 82-year-old real estate mogul Henri Lelièvre (Georges Wilson). At the grand estate where Lelièvre lives, Mesrine and his mostly silent partner Francois Besse (Mathieu Amalric) pretend to be cops who need to question Lelièvre about some of his properties. Lelièvre is 82 and looks it. He moves slowly, seems fragile. One cringes at the thought of him in the hands of these brutes, and, sure enough, before we know it, he’s sitting on the edge of a cot in a small room, perplexed, wondering what they want with him. Mesrine gloats. They’ve kidnapped him! They’re demanding 10 million francs! Then the fun begins. Lelièvre says aloud, “10 million? I’m 82,” and shakes his head. The businessman in him is insulted at the price even though it’s his own neck on the line. Mesrine is taken aback. He bargains. Eight million? Seven million? In the end they agree to six million over three installments. Lelièvre may be 82 and helpless, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get ripped off.
The 1970s were an absurd time, both in the states and abroad, and “Mesrine: L'ennemi public n°1,” the second part of Jean-Francois Richet’s nearly four-hour staccato biopic, reflects that absurdity. Against a backdrop of organizations attempting to bring down the system—PLO, Baader-Meinhoff, Red Brigades—Mesrine, an uncommon criminal with a gift for gab, impersonation and escape, passes himself off as a man of the people. In reality he’s just a violent man who can’t bear the 9-to-5 life. We’re intrigued by the second part, repelled by the first, but in the end I still wondered, as I did at the end of part one, “What’s the point? Of all the lives to portray, why portray this life?”
Part two begins back in France, in 1973, with Mesrine (pronounced May-reen) incarcerated, bragging to the cops that he’ll break out in three months. It doesn’t even take that long. On the way to trial, he claims sickness, needs to use the bathroom. Even as the cops hold onto one end of his handcuffs behind the bathroom door, he, a la Michael Corleone in “The Godfather,” reaches behind the toilet tank to retrieve a revolver his pal left there. He takes it into court and, boom boom, uses it, and a judge/hostage, to escape.
For the first half-hour we get various escapes, where the back window of Mesrine’s car is invariably shot out, and where spectacular car crashes invariably occur but Mesrine’s car invariably limps to safety. Bullets fly but everyone’s a pretty lousy shot. Occasionally one of the bad guys gets winged but that’s about it. Juxtapose these action scenes with a few family reunions. A disguised Mesrine reconciles with his dying father. An incarcerated Mesrine clumsily bonds with his teenaged daughter. Cassel is brilliant in all of this. His own father, actor Jean-Pierre Cassel, was dying of cancer at the time, and the deathbed scene with his on-screen father, who would’ve been played by his actual father if cancer hadn’t reared its ugly head, is particularly intense.
In September ’73 Mesrine is finally captured (again), and in prison he rails against, not the cops or the system, but the Chilean coup that stole his press. “Pinochet, Pinochet,” he complains, flicking his hand at a newspaper. Filling a gap, he demands a typewriter and writes his own memoirs, “L’instinct de mort,” which became the basis for the first part of the film. But it takes him five years to live up to his promise of another escape.
For the rest of the film he complains about maximum security facilities, but we don’t see much of this incarceration so don’t know what he’s complaining about. He meets Besse, a no-nonsense crook who does prison-yard pushups even as Mesrine’s body goes to pot, and they plot escape. But the five years, interminable for him, go like that for us. Plus the escape isn’t that cool. Besse is able to hide a can of mace inside a box of “Petit Beurre,” and when the guards’ metal detector goes off during a routine search they assume it’s the tinfoil packaging and don’t look inside. As for how Mesrine gets his guns? His lawyer brings them. Hardly Andy Dufresne at Shawshank. (Also untrue? According to Wikipedia, guards smuggled in the weapons.)
The larger-than-life Mesrine and the smaller-than-life Besse make a good team. Post-escape, they rob a casino and go on the lam. A stream they’re fording turns out to be much deeper than the optimistic Mesrine anticipated, so he attempts, optimistically again, to toss the loot onto the other side. It splashes in the water, floats downstream, sinks. “That’s your share!” Besse complains bitterly. Then the punchline. He spots a rowboat, 10 feet away, on their side of the river. The fording wasn’t necessary. As an army of men, arms linked, march across a field to capture them, they make their escape via dingy, half their loot unnecessarily, optimistically spent.
“Mesrine” part II contains parallels with part I—Mesrine hooks up with a girl (Ludivine Sagnier), he hooks up with different partners, he kidnaps an old, rich dude—but the most pungent parallel is the kidnapping and near-murder of French journalist Jacques Dallier (read: Tillier, played by Alain Fromager), which echoes, and provides an overall bookend with, the kidnapping and murder of Ahmed the Pimp in “L’instinct de mort.” In both, the victim goes on a car ride with Mesrine and another man. In both, he assumes he’s safe. In both, he’s toyed with in sadistic fashion, then stripped naked, beaten, shot or stabbed, and left for dead. Finally, in both, neither victim is particularly sympathetic. Ahmed is a pimp who beats women; Dallier is a right-wing, racist snitch. Each scene shows Mesrine at his worst.
We needed more such scenes. Not to be too Will Hays about this, but Mesrine was a nasty, opportunistic man, and Cassel is entirely too charismatic to play him so we don’t want to be him. He’s living large, getting babes, talking trash. Sure, he winds up in a pool of his own blood, at the hands of frightened policemen, but he’s our eyes and ears through this world, and he’s the only one having any kind of fun. He’s still the man. As for a larger point in the biopic? It escapes me.
Sidenote: Just as Mesrine’s ’73 capture coincided with the Chilean coup, which stole his press, so his death, on November 2, 1979, occurred two days before Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took hostages. One imagines him in the afterlife, complaining bitterly: “Khomeini, Khomeini.” One imagines him demanding a typewriter to set the record straight.
“OK, here's the deal. We escape together, but afterwards I get all the women, the best scenes, and, ultimately, the biopic. D'accord?”
Review: “Un Prophete” (2009)
WARNING: DEER-IN-HEADLIGHTS SPOILERS
“The idea is to leave here a little smarter,” Reyeb (Hitchem Yacoubi) tells Malik (Tahar Rahim), as the two sit on the edge of his prison bunk and Reyeb stirs his coffee. Reyeb has just found out that Malik, his fellow Muslim, is illiterate, and he’s acting solicitous toward him—suggesting he can always learn to read, telling him he’ll give him some books—even as he’s anticipating a blow job. Instead he gets his throat slit. Guess the joke’s on him, right? Guess he left there a little smarter.
But he doesn’t leave. He remains in Malik’s life—a palpable, matter-of-fact symbol of guilt—and his words linger. And after six years Malik will leave there a whole lot smarter than when he entered. He will leave a prophet. It’s prison as a means to both worldly and spiritual redemption. Kids, don’t try this at home.
“Un Prophete,” which was nominated for 13 Cesars and won nine, including best picture, director (Jacque Audiard), actor (Rahim), supporting actor (Niels Arestrup), writing, editing, and cinematography, is both gritty and uplifting, full of lessons of realpolitik and the unknowability of dreams and life. It’s a movie for anyone who thought nothing more could be done with the prison drama or the gangster life. It’s a film we will still be watching in 50 years.
Malik’s life begins when he enters prison. He has nothing but the scars on his face and the 50-euro note he tries to hide in his shoe; it’s found and confiscated. He’s stripped, shaved, given a pillow and a metal tray and a new pair of tennis shoes. In the prison yard, alone, the shoes are big and white and seem to gleam, and a second later he’s attacked and his shoes are taken. He gives back—he attacks his attackers—but gets beaten down again. The odds aren’t good. He’s alone with six years to go.
He might not have made it if Reyeb hadn’t shown up. The prison is divided between Corsicans, who are few but control the guards, and Muslims, who are many but control nothing, and Reyeb, about to testify in a trial against a Corsican, is targeted by prison don Cesar Luciani (Arestrup), whose boss, Jacky, has given him 10 days to kill the snitch. Easier said. Cesar moves through the prison with relative ease but he doesn’t control the Muslim section. Then he hears that Reyeb asked this new kid to suck him off, and, in the prison yard, he makes Malik an offer he can’t refuse: Kill Reyeb or I kill you.
We later learn that Malik didn’t have much of an upbringing. When asked if he spoke French or Arabic with his parents, he responds, “I wasn’t with them.” When asked about school, he replies, “The juvenile center.” We have sympathy for him the way we would a stray dog. He’s scared and confused, but watchful, and back in his cell, after Cesar threatens him, he tells himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” He tries to contact the warden but the Corsicans hear and nearly suffocate him in a plastic bag, saying, “We run this place.” In the sewing shop he joins in a beat-down of a helpless prisoner, hoping to get tossed into solitary, but Cesar hears of this and beats him down. He’s trapped. He has to do this thing.
It’s the palpability of the act that gets you: less the Peckinpahesque spurting of blood from Reyeb’s neck than the goopy way blood and saliva mix as Malik pulls the razor blade from his mouth, where he’s involuntarily cut himself. It’s his careful extrication from the scene: stepping over the blood; placing the razor in Reyeb’s hand; scrubbing the blood from his shirt in the prison bathroom. It’s the disconnect one feels despite this precision. Malik hears someone screaming; he sees flames falling out of a prison cell. What is going on?
Prison life opens up for Malik afterwards. He receives cartons of cigarettes from Cesar (“You’re under his protection now”), and, taking Reyeb’s advice, he learns to read (“Canard: Ca-nard”), but he’s still isolated. The Muslims view him as a Corsican while the Corsicans disparage him as a dirty Arab. His main companion is the man he killed. In his dreams Malik wrestles with Reyeb, as if he were the Archangel Gabriel, and in the morning Reyeb is there, a physical presence. Reyeb is the one who sings “Happy Birthday” to Malik in Arabic on the one-year anniversary of his incarceration. He’s the one staring with him out his cell window as snow falls on the prisoners in the courtyard.
Life opens up even more when these Corsican gangsters, like naughty schoolboys, are separated by powers outside the prison. Perhaps feeling sorry for Cesar, Malik, eyes alight with his secret, reveals that he’s learned Corsican over the years and the conversations he’s been privy to. Cesar stares at him, then hits him. Because he senses the pity? Because he senses opportunism? Because his private conversations weren’t private and this dirty Arab is smarter than he realized? Regardless, he soon comes to rely on Malik more and more, but there is no corresponding sense of respect. He keeps treating Malik like a dirty Arab.
Bad move. Both inside the prison, and outside on work-leaves, Malik makes contacts and accrues power. He gets involved with Jordi, the Gypsy (Reda Kateb), who deals hashish. He becomes friends with Ryad (Adel Bencherif), who is the beginning of his entré into the suspicious Muslim prison community. He does his jobs, straddles both worlds, acts the professional. There’s an unaffected quality to him, an ingenuousness. “Why is an Arab working for the Corsicans?” he’s asked. “I work for who pays me,” he answers. One realizes after a while: He doesn’t lie. He’s polite, and professional, and doesn’t lie. The world he lives in expects lies and he disarms everyone with honesty.
His first work-leave is beautiful. After three years he’s finally out of prison, and as Ryad, who’s done his time, picks him up, Alexandre Desplat’s music, “La sortie,” wells up and overwhelms any attempt at conversation, as if the music were Malik’s emotions. He feels the wind on his face, the sun on his face; then he does a job for Cesar. He gets 5,000 euros to retrieve a Corsican gangster from a Muslim gang. Then he does a job for himself. He retrieves 25 kilos of hash stored by one of the Gypsy’s men. “Five thousand euros and 25 kilos of hash?” Ryad asks him, stunned, when they hook up at dusk. “All in one day?” You know that scene in “The Godfather” where Michael suggests killing the Turk? Where Michael essentially takes over? That’s this. Malik doesn’t respond to Ryad’s question. He simply tells Ryad what they’re going to do:
We get guys to stock and sell. We supply. We use convoys and buy at the source. The Gypsy has contacts. We need three big cars. Paris-Marbella in one night.
When Ryad objects, saying he’s never done this before, Malik responds, “What’s the big deal? Neither have I.”
What do we make of the prophet angle and Malik’s vision of the deer? To what extent do we compare Malik, the prophet, with the prophet Muhammad? Both are orphans. Both get involved in the merchant trade. Later in the film Malik will go into isolation, solitary, for 40 days and 40 nights, and emerge more powerful than ever. One can call him a Muhammadian figure the way one can call Luke in “Cool Hand Luke” a Christ figure. Elements of the ancient religious story are used to tell the tale of a modern prisoner.
Would things have turned out differently, less Oedipal, if Cesar had treated Malik with any kind of respect? Actor Niels Arestrup has a mane of white hair and fierce blue eyes, and initially one thinks of him as a Godfather type, a Don Corleone in prison; but as the movie progresses and one sees his prejudices, his betrayals, his smallness, one realizes he’s more like the Black Hand. He’s the classless oaf that needs to be overcome. It’s Malik who becomes the Godfather. At one point Cesar nearly puts Malik’s eye out, telling him, “People look at you and see me. Otherwise what would they see? Can you tell me?” The implication is that Malik is nothing without him, but the greater implication, which Cesar fears, or is perhaps too stupid to realize, is that Malik is becoming him. Returning to his cell, his eye damaged by Cesar, Malik promises himself “I’m gonna kill you,” just as, earlier, he’d promised himself, “I can’t kill anyone.” It’s the promises to himself that he breaks. He does kill, Reyeb and others, but he doesn’t kill Cesar. He does something worse. He renders him powerless. By the end their positions are reversed: Malik is the prison don, respected in his community, while Cesar is the weak, isolated man in the prison yard, beyond the circle of power. Beyond contempt.
The arc of its story is brilliant but it’s the details that stay with me—such as Malik’s first planetrip, sandwiched between two bored commuters, trying to get a glimpse of the sky out the window. He’s heading to Marseilles for a meeting, at Cesar’s behest, with Brahim Lattrache (Slimane Dazi—one of the many amazing faces in this movie), where, again, he’s the distrusted Arab courier, but where his vision of the deer saves his life. Afterwards the deer meat is washed in the Mediterranean, and Lattrache, eyeing him with new respect, is intrigued by this quiet, honest man who straddles cultures. “Let’s get sucked before you go,” he says, but Malik turns him down. “I’d like to stay on the beach,” he says. He wades out into the water. One senses he’s never seen the sea before. Back in the dark of his prison cell, he takes off his shoe, looks inside, upends it. Sand courses through his fingers.
I’ve seen this movie twice; I feel like seeing it again now.
Malik (Tahar Rahim), left, after earning a place on the bench of Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup), in Jacque Audiard's brilliant prison drama “Un Prophete.”
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